High Speed Rail; “That Used to be Us.”

It makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us…. That used to be us.” President Obama November, 2010  [Turnbull]

By Tony Noerpel

In order to avoid a climate catastrophe, we are probably going to have to stop flying.  Flying is responsible for 5 percent of global warming [Timperley] and there is no currently available alternative fuel which scales [Note].  Possible technologies include burning hydrogen or biofuels.  But these release water vapor at high altitude contributing to the greenhouse effect via contrails and biofuels release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.  Current methods of creating hydrogen are energy intensive.  Biofuels require land to grow suitable crops.  That land has to come from agriculture or wildlife.  And wildlife has been going extinct over 100 times faster than the background extinction rate during the Cenozoic [Andermann].  

In fact, the real problem is the ongoing sixth extinction and the major cause is habitat destruction and degradation, not climate change, which is a subsidiary problem.  The total mass of all wild mammals is only 17 percent of what it once was [Bar-On] and the rate of loss is accelerating.  Since only 5 percent of the world population has ever flown [Kalmus], eliminating flying is low hanging fruit.  Abandoning the practice inconveniences only a small minority.  However, we cannot simply legislate or regulate flying out of existence.  Society has to make better alternatives available.  This is why, by the way, I oppose a carbon tax which is punitive and regressive and instead favor carrots, in this case investment in subsidized high-speed rail service.  

The new National Academy of Sciences report [NAS] “Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System” advises: “Invest in more electrified train services and aircraft.”  During the introduction of this report last Tuesday, one of the panelists ruled out technology which doesn’t already exist.  I would add that it should be scalable, too.  There are tens of thousands of kilometers of electrified train lines worldwide but electrified aircraft challenges physics. The energy-efficient and emissions-reduction alternative to flying is high-speed rail.  Figure 1 compares the emissions from flying with rail travel and automobiles [Timperley].  However, the latter two travel methods can be electrified and can be emissions-free if the energy source is wind, solar or nuclear which are all existing technologies.  

It is generally believed that high speed rail is the fastest technology for paths less than 1000 miles.  Aviation is faster during the flight but adding in the check-in time and security, HSR is very competitive.  Train travel offers more comfortable seating, more leg room and more storage for luggage, and free Wi-Fi and other amenities.  While a nonstop flight from Dulles to Dallas takes only 2:45 hours, flying one stop takes about 8:50 hours.  While taking the train between these two cities now takes 44 hours, the HSR train between Beijing and Hong Kong, the same distance, takes only 8:56 minutes [Wendover].  

Unfortunately, the United States is far behind the rest of the world developing high-speed rail.  A map of their high-speed rail buildout as of 2020 is shown in Figure 2.  In fact, while much progress has been made in Europe, Japan, China and other countries in Asia, we have no high-speed rail except a small segment of Amtrak’s Washington DC to Boston Acela route, which does not qualify as high-speed rail by international standards.  Acela is the fastest train service in America but it only averages 70 mph over its entire length and only hits a maximum of 150 mph for a very short segment.  

Meanwhile, China has already developed 39,700 km (24,600 miles) of rail which supports trains running up to 350 km/hr (220 mph) by the end of 2020 [Ya’Nan], and they achieved this in about 12 years.  Since we literally have no time to reinvent the technology and China owns about 85 percent of the intellectual property, surpassing Europe and Japan, we are going to need to cooperate.  

Plans for track upgrades on Acela between NY and Washington are expected to be completed by 2030 and between NY and Boston by 2040.  These plans are inadequate as it will not be until 2040 that speeds reach 220 mph.  At this time, travel between Boston and Washington will take only 3 hours and 8 minutes which is competitive with air travel.  The upgrade is expected to cost $151 billion [Railways explained].  The distance is 440 miles or about 700 km.  Construction costs in China are $20.6 million per kilometer.  Using Chinese technology and methods, this would only cost $14 billion if completed in China.  Some of that may be due to labor costs but about 40 percent of China’s economic competitiveness is due to government involvement, ownership, standardization and better technology.  Too much of the additional costs in our country are due to costs outside of technology and labor such as for-profit or finance capitalism and simply reflect the lack of political will.  China subsidizes their rail network just like our government has built nearly all roads including the interstate highway system.

California high speed rail service is another example of the failure of political will and imagination.  Service between San Francisco and Los Angeles has been discussed and planned for over four decades and yet is not expected to be completed before 2030.  The total length is 520 miles or 837 km between San Francisco and Anaheim and by adding lines to Sacramento and San Diego it would be about 800 miles or 1287 km in total.  Trains would operate at 220 mph and service 24 stations.  China completes about three times this length every year.  President Lyndon Johnson signed the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act into law in 1965, which passed in congress with bipartisan support 409 to 23 [Railfan].  As President Obama observed “That used to be us.”  What went wrong?

Defense spending by our government which is entirely waste, is currently $741 billion per year.  If we cut defense spending by $700 billion per year, we would still be spending twice as much as Canada, a country with comparable boarders to defend.  For $700 billion, we could build up to 8 transcontinental rail lines every year.  This would put those out-of-work in the defense industry into more productive employment building something much more beneficial.  Using data from Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, we could raise over $860 billion per year with a modest wealth tax and properly taxing corporations like Apple, which presently don’t pay taxes [Saez].  By adopting Medicare-for-all, we could save $450 billion and 70,000 lives per year [Galvani].  We have the money.  

There are two schools of thought on investment in high-speed rail.  The neo-liberal capitalists view is that if it doesn’t make a profit for rent seekers, bankers and investors it isn’t worth doing.  The other school of thought is that investments in the community by the government have positive feedbacks which more than pay for the costs.  

The first view is expressed by James Guild [Guild] who complains of the exorbitant costs of China’s investment in high-speed rail which basically comes down to “but nobody on Wall Street is making any money.”  The second view is expressed by Mark Kruger [Kruger] who argues that the societal benefits of government investment in infrastructure benefits the citizenry, and improves our quality of life.  Founders of the Republican Party including President Abraham Lincoln supported government investment in roads and railroads.  And this attitude was reflected in President Dwight Eisenhower’s investment in the interstate highway system, which made no profit at all yet encouraged commerce and economic expansion.  Other government investments which have supported vastly more economic activity beyond their costs include the Global Positioning System (GPS), the National Weather Service, and education.  The proper way to think about government construction of high-speed rail is as an extension of Eisenhower’s interstate highway system and not as a business. 

An illustrative case in point is the Dulles Toll Road.  All of the public roads built in America by governments enhance socio-economic opportunity for all citizens, improving the economy and expanding the tax base.  Whereas the only source of income and profit for a private road are tolls.  If the motivation is profit, then one wants to optimize traffic in a way that balances the cost of maintenance with revenue, which is not the same thing as motivating connectivity and cooperation between centers of commerce.  

Private for-profit business is an inappropriate model for national defense but also for education, health care and necessary infrastructure.  We need governments to forecast the weather, educate our children and discover the Higgs Boson.  The historian Yuval Harari observes that what defeated Soviet-style central planning was America’s hybrid economy consisting of a wealth of diverse institutions from private businesses, government institutions, non-profits, volunteer organizations, cooperatives and trusts and specifically not free-market capitalism. 

In summary, high-speed rail is necessary in order that we meet our emissions reduction targets and it is a good investment in our communities and population.  While China now holds most of the intellectual property, we can play the same game they did.  Invite them to open factories in the US to manufacture their technology and from there go on to improve it so we can compete with them on the international market.  There is plenty of money to achieve the same remarkable progress as the Chinese people if only we reestablish our priorities.


[Note] From [wiki-saf] “Dozens of companies received hundreds of millions in venture capital from 2005 to 2012 to extract fuel oil from algae, some promising competitively priced fuel by 2012 and a production of 1 billion US gal (3.8 million m3) by 2012-2014.[27] By 2017, no[ne] were achieved and most companies had disappeared or changed their business plans to focus on cosmetics supplements, nutraceuticals, pet food additives, animal feed, pigments and specialty oils.”  It is not that we should continue to try to develop a sustainable aviation fuel; we should not count on success.  It is not a feel good story.

[Andermann] T. Andermann, S. Faurby, S. T. Turvey, A. Antonelli, D. Silvestro, The past and future

human impact on mammalian diversity. Sci. Adv. 6, eabb2313 (2020).  https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abb2313 

[Galvani] Alison P Galvani, Alyssa S Parpia, Eric M Foster, Burton H Singer, Meagan C Fitzpatrick, Improving the prognosis of health care in the USA, Lancet,  www.thelancet.com    Vol 395 February 15, 2020

[Guild] James Guild, November 10, 2020,  China’s BRI and its High-Speed Railways to Nowhere, https://thediplomat.com/2020/11/chinas-bri-and-its-high-speed-railways-to-nowhere/ 

[Kalmas] Peter Kalmas, Being the Change, Live well and spark a climate revolution, New Society Publishers, 2017.

[Kruger] Mark Kruger, China’s High-Speed Rail: A Case Study in Independent Innovation, February 4, 2020, https://www.yicaiglobal.com/opinion/mark.kruger/china-high-speed-rail–a-case-study-in-independent-innovation 

[NAS] Download: Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System | The National Academies Press (nap.edu)

[Railfan] Avelia Liberty: The Future Of High-Speed Rail In America, Oct 7, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=looZZpiMFZw

[Railways explained] Oct 25, 2020, Does the US Have a High-Speed Rail? (Journey from Amtrak’s Acela to Avelia Liberty) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnY_dPPOTKo 

[Saez] Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, The triumph of Injustice, How the rich dodge taxes and how to make them pay, Norton, 2019.  National income is about $21 trillion https://ycharts.com/indicators/us_gross_national_income  .  The authors suggest wealth taxes on billionaires and businesses amounting to 4.1% of national income which is $861 billion additional tax income. p 191.

[Timperley] Jocelyn Timperley, 18th February 2020, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200218-climate-change-how-to-cut-your-carbon-emissions-when-flying 

[Turnbull] Malcolm Turnbull. 5:25 minute, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FothKc-0vG8 

[Ya’Nan] Lu Ya’Nan, January 28, 2021, https://www.alwihdainfo.com/Length-of-China-s-high-speed-rail-lines-doubles-in-past-five-years_a100050.html 

[Yeo] Mike Yeo, May 22, 2020, China announces $178.2 billion military budget, https://www.defensenews.com/global/asia-pacific/2020/05/22/china-announces-1782-billion-military-budget/ 

[Wendover] Wendover Productions, Why China Is so Good at Building Railways, Nov 13, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JDoll8OEFE
[wiki-saf] Wikipedia sustainable aviation fuel https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aviation_biofuel#Sustainable_fuels

Figure 1. Comparison between flying, driving and taking a train.  However, trains and cars can run on electricity and have the potential to be emissions free, while planes do not. Source: [Timperley]
Figure 2.  Existing high speed rail routes in China.


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